International watchdog: Malaysia should change or repeal laws limiting free speech, not use them against critics

Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, Phil Robertson, speaks during a press conference in Petaling Jaya May 8, 2019. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, Phil Robertson, speaks during a press conference in Petaling Jaya May 8, 2019. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

KUALA LUMPUR, June 10 — The Malaysian government should implement legal reforms by amending or revoking laws that limit the freedom of expression and that could be open to abuse, instead of using such laws against journalists, activists or critics, watchdog Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch claimed that the authorities under the new Perikatan Nasional (PN) administration installed in March have increased the use of broadly-worded and “abusive laws” that violate the right to freedom of expression to investigate and charge those who are critical of the government.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said Malaysia should move away from using such laws.

“Like flicking a light switch, Malaysian authorities have returned to rights-abusing practices of the past, calling journalists, activists, and opposition figures into police stations to be questioned about their writing and social media posts.

“The government should stop trying to return to the bad old days and revise the laws to meet international standards,” he said in a statement.

“Malaysians should be able to criticise their government and its policies without fear of facing police questioning and possible criminal charges,” he added.

“Instead of dusting off abusive laws for use against its critics, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s administration should amend or repeal those laws to protect everyone’s freedom of speech in Malaysia,” he further said.

Human Rights Watch cited examples of several legal provisions used recently by the Malaysian government in investigations, including Section 233(1) of the Communications and Multimedia Act which makes it a crime to make an online communication that falls under a wide range of categories of being “indecent, obscene, false, menacing or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass any person” with a penalty of a maximum one-year jail or a maximum RM50,000 fine or both.

Also cited were two offences that both come with a maximum two-year jail term or fine or both, namely the Penal Code’s Section 504 which criminalises intentional insult with intent to provoke a breach of peace, and Section 505(b) that among other things criminalises the making, publishing or circulation of any statement, rumour or report with intent to cause or which is likely to cause fear or alarm to the public.

Human Rights Watch said that such laws that were used in recent investigations are too broad and subject to abuse, noting that past governments had used such laws against critics.

But Human Rights Watch said that international human rights standards would mean that governments may only restrict freedom of expression if provided for by law and if deemed necessary for the respect of others’ rights or reputations, or to protect national security, public order, public health or morals.

“Restrictions must be narrowly drawn to limit speech as little as possible, and sufficiently precise that an individual can understand what is made unlawful,” it added, noting that none of the local laws mentioned meet global standards for human rights.

Among recent examples listed by Human Rights Watch were the investigation of journalist Tashny Sukumaran over immigration raids in an area under an enhanced movement control order (EMCO), Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4 Centre) founding director Cynthia Gabriel over calls for a probe into alleged government irregularities, Opposition MP Dr Xavier Jayakumar over his criticism of the shortened Parliament sitting and a businessman who criticised the government for charging those who breached movement restrictions for Covid-19.


 

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